Penn’s Myopia Is Malignant
by Bob Avakian
March 27, 2020
In a recent appearance on CNN, in discussing the possible role of the U.S. military in the current crisis related to the coronavirus COVID-19, the prominent actor Sean Penn actually said the following: “There is no greater humanitarian force on the planet than the United States military.”
In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, 2010, Penn devoted himself for an extended period to relief efforts in that country. That, taken by itself, would be admirable. But, proceeding from his cooperation with the U.S. military in relation to those relief efforts, Penn has completely misrepresented and covered over the overall and essential nature and actions of the U.S. military, and he has gone so far as to glorify this military which, by its very nature and in accordance with the system it serves and seeks to enforce, has been and continues to be guilty of the most horrendous war crimes and crimes against humanity.
To begin with, the following gives a graphic sense of the larger role of the U.S., and in particular its military, in its overall relations with Haiti over the past 100 years and more.
At the time of the 2010 earthquake, speaking of the U.S. role in Haiti, Bill Quigley, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said: “We have kept the country dependent. We have kept the country militarized. And we kept the country impoverished. We have dumped our excess rice, our excess farm produce and that stuff on the country, thereby undercutting the small farmers who would make up the backbone of the place… We didn’t create the earthquake, but we created some of the circumstances that made the earthquake so devastating….” (Democracy Now!, January 14, 2010)1
In the 20th century, the U.S. asserted itself as the dominant power in its “backyard.” In 1915 it invaded and occupied Haiti. U.S. Marines went straight to the Haitian national bank and removed its gold reserves to Citibank in New York City. The Haitian constitution was rewritten to allow foreign ownership of Haitian property; land was seized from small peasants to create large plantations; the economy was reorganized so that 40% of Haiti’s gross domestic product flowed to U.S. banks.
The Haitian people fiercely resisted the occupation in a series of revolts which the U.S. military ruthlessly crushed, murdering leaders, burning villages to the ground and killing 15‑30,000 Haitians. The occupiers did not leave until 1934, leaving behind the brutal, U.S.‑trained, Haitian National Army to repress the people.
In 1957, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power and set up his own army of thugs—the Tontons Macoutes. The Duvalierist reign of terror—supported and backed by the U.S.—killed roughly 50,000 people.
When Papa Doc died in 1971, U.S. warships were stationed just off the coast of Haiti to oversee a smooth transition of power to Duvalier’s son, Jean‑Claude (“Baby Doc”). Baby Doc was closely associated with the “American Plan,” which explicitly aimed to cut the ground out from under peasant agriculture by large‑scale imports of cheaper U.S. goods, driving hundreds of thousands of peasants into the cities and shantytowns, desperate for work in U.S.‑owned assembly plants being set up by the likes of Disney and Kmart, which paid workers 11 cents an hour to make pajamas and t‑shirts.
In 1985‑86 a powerful uprising swept Haiti, forcing the U.S. to rescue Baby Doc and fly him to the French Riviera, in order to preserve their basic control of the country through the Haitian Army. A series of military governments followed, known to Haitians as “Duvalierism without Duvalier.”2
Racist attitudes toward the Haitian people by U.S. occupation forces were blatant and widespread. Robert Lansing, then U.S. secretary of state, justified the occupation by claiming Haitians had “an inherent tendency toward savagery and a physical inability to live a civilized life,” so were incapable of self‑government. Medill McCormick, a senator from Illinois, wrote in 1920 that the American occupation was necessary “to develop the country, the Government, and above all, the civilization of the people, of whom the overwhelming majority have African blood in their veins.” There were many reports of U.S. Marines sexually assaulting Haitian women. The occupation included segregation and enforced chain gangs to build roads and other construction projects….
Haitian people fiercely resisted the occupation in a series of revolts, which the U.S. military ruthlessly crushed—murdering leaders, burning villages to the ground, and killing thousands of people. Haitian‑American author Edwidge Danticat wrote: “My grandfather was one of the Cacos, or so‑called bandits, whom retired American Marines have always written about in their memoirs. They would be called insurgents now, the thousands who fought against the occupation. One of the stories my grandfather’s oldest son, my uncle Joseph, used to tell was of watching a group of young Marines kicking around a man’s decapitated head in an effort to frighten the rebels in their area.” Danticat also talks about how the Marines murdered one of the occupation’s most famous resistance fighters, Charlemagne Péralte, then pinned his body to a door where it was left to rot in the sun for days.
During the 19 years of the U.S. occupation, at least 15,000 Haitians were killed. In 1918 there was an uprising of some 40,000 people. After the Haitian Gendarmerie was overwhelmed, U.S. Marines helped put down the rebellion, killing 2,000 people. During a December 1929 demonstration in the city of Les Cayes, part of a nationwide strike and ongoing rebellion, U.S. Marines fired on 1,500 people, wounding 23 and killing 12.3
In other words, during the last 16 years that Haiti has been occupied by various combinations of UN and U.S. troops—and not just since the earthquake—most people’s lives have gotten much worse.4
What the U.S. has actually done, over the course of more than a century, in Haiti is consistent with and part of a larger pattern that involves repeated atrocity, slaughter and destruction on a mass scale carried out by the U.S. military, as well as the CIA and other “intelligent services” working with—and forcefully backed up by—the U.S. military throughout its history and right up to today.
Without going back through all the atrocities committed by the U.S. military from the beginning of this country, including its genocidal wars against the native peoples and its vicious enforcement of slavery and suppression of uprisings against slavery, the following, drawn from the experience of just the last 75 years, gives a fuller picture of the truly grotesque nature and role of this military:
Dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities at the end of World War 2 in 1945, immediately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and subjecting many others to excruciating suffering and eventual death.
Carrying out numerous invasions and coups, in countries all over the world, through which masses of people were slaughtered and the countries subjected to decades of tyrannical rule (for example: coups in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Indonesia, in 1965, and the invasion of the Dominican Republic, next door neighbor to Haiti, killing thousands, in 1965, at the same time as the U.S. was escalating its war in Vietnam).
Killing several million people during the Korean war of 1950-53 and, among other things, virtually flattening the entire country of North Korea.
Slaughtering several million more and poisoning large parts of the countryside during the Vietnam war, from 1964-73, including the use of such grotesque chemical weapons as napalm (flesh-burning jellied gasoline), white phosphorous and Agent Orange.5
And so it has gone over the time since the Vietnam war, with continuing bloody coups and invasions. In more recent times, for example:
Over the course of 18 years, three [U.S.] administrations have deployed nearly 800,000 troops to Afghanistan, and 50 NATO countries and their partners have sent tens of thousands more.
The violence unleashed by the U.S. has been staggering. Between 2004 and 2018, it dropped over 38,000 bombs on Afghanistan. As of March 2020, it had carried out over 12,000 drone strikes.
U.S. forces and their Afghan clients terrorized people with dead‑of‑night house searches. They created a network of prison and detention centers where at least 15,000 Afghans have been detained on little or no evidence, brutally beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed. This week the International Criminal Court stated it had proof that U.S. forces had “committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape, and sexual violence”—war crimes—in Afghanistan.
By August 2016, some 111,000 people had been killed and over 116,000 injured in the war. And one study found that the “war on terror” had directly or indirectly led to around 220,000 deaths in Afghanistan by 2013. On top of this carnage, nearly five million Afghan people have been forced from their homes by the war.6
This, along with what the U.S. and its military has done through waging war in Iraq, including the 2003 invasion of that country and its aftermath, which constituted an international war crime and (as I have pointed out previously) “unleashed a maelstrom of death and destruction in that part of the world.”7
And then there is the role of the U.S. military within this country in more recent times—backing up the police in suppressing urban rebellions during the 1960s and again in 1992 and killing hundreds of people in the process, many of them unarmed (rebellions which in large part erupted in response to violence—brutality and murder—by police).
Is all this what Sean Penn has in mind—or has he “conveniently” remained ignorant of, or chosen to ignore, all this—when he praises the U.S. military as the greatest humanitarian force in the world?!
That the U.S. military, as part of U.S. efforts to maintain control and “order” in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, might have taken actions that facilitated relief efforts in some aspects is not difficult to believe. Heads of criminal enterprises, such as Mafia Godfathers, drug lords and cartel bosses, often engage in charitable acts in the effort to burnish their reputation and win good will, or at least acquiescence, from those they prey upon, even as violent terror is their main way of imposing their influence or dominance. And the partial review presented here of the role of U.S. imperialism and its military, not only in Haiti but throughout the world and throughout its history, amply illustrate the truth of the statement that “These imperialists make the Godfather look like Mary Poppins.”8
Whatever their actions might be in any particular situation, the overall and essential nature and role of the institutions of massive violence of this capitalist-imperialist system (the military, and the police as well) must not be covered over and distorted, and still less should these institutions be extolled and glorified. And especially for those, like Sean Penn, who have a platform to speak to masses of people, there remains the responsibility to go beyond one’s own partial and limited experience and corresponding narrow perspective, to seek an understanding of the overall and essential reality and to speak truthfully and responsibly—and not, as Sean Penn is doing, acting in effect as not only an apologist but an intellectual accomplice of the continuing crimes of this system and its armed enforcers.
1. “Hurricane Matthew: A Horror in Haiti, A Cold‑Blooded Response By the Rulers of the U.S.,” Revolution #460, October 10, 2016, available online at revcom.us. [back]
2. “The U.S. in Haiti: A Century of Domination and Misery,” Revolution #525, January 8, 2017, available online at revcom.us. [back]
3. “American Crime Case #80: 1915-1931: The U.S. Invasion, Occupation and Domination of Haiti,” Revolution #456, September 12, 2016, available online at revcom.us. [back]
4. “Cholera in Haiti: a foreseeable result of a criminal system” (From A World To Win News Service), in Revolution #223, January 23, 2011, available online at revcom.us. [back]
5. For a fuller picture of the horrors visited upon Vietnam and its people by the U.S. during that war, see Bob Avakian, On Bargains With The Devil—Trump Fascism, “Obamanation,” And The System They Serve, available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and revcom.us. [back]
6. “America Leaves Afghanistan After Killing Over 100,000 People in Its ‘Good War,’” posted at revcom.us, March 9, 2020. [back]
7. Bob Avakian, David Brooks—The Not So Great Pretender—And The Profound Differences Between Trump, Sanders And Actual Socialism, available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and revcom.us. [back]
8. BAsics 1:7 (BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian). [back]